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Breaking the Ghostly Silence on Rape

Public awareness and advocacy can help save young children from sexual predators. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

COLOMBO, Jul 30 2012 (IPS) - It was the ghostly silence that struck him hardest as he walked through the Colombo suburb of Kirulapone the day after the lifeless body of a six-year-old girl had been discovered floating in a filthy canal, Kumar de Silva, a well-known local media personality, told IPS.

The autopsy report later revealed that the child had been raped by a 16-year-old relative and his two friends, and then dumped in the canal, where she drowned.

“It was a ghost town, as if nothing had happened,” de Silva told IPS.  “I just could not take the silence any longer.”

The little girl’s body was recovered in the midst of a spell of similar tragedies. Last month six men including a local politician raped a 13-year-old in the southern town of Tangalle, while a 14-year-old girl was repeatedly raped for two consecutive days in another southern town called Akuressa.

De Silva, disturbed by the events and the silence that followed them, took his grievances to the realm of social media, writing on his Facebook wall, “No to rape, no to child abuse.”

Soon he had received hundreds of comments and he turned his wall post into a separate page, which has now attracted hundreds of followers who chronicle reports of rape and abuse.

De Silva has also been trying to mobilise media and his colleagues to speak out.  “I am doing this as a concerned father and a citizen. I want to inspire and provoke people to shout,” he said.

Diarietou Gaye, the Senegalese-born country head for the World Bank in Sri Lanka, could not take the silence either.

After numerous conversations with her staff, Gaye took a very unusual step for a representative of an international donor agency – she went public and aired her views on her blog.

“It is about time people start talking about it at work, in the neighbourhood, in school, in religious institutions and in any public or private fora and denounce this degrading act of violence,” Gaye told IPS, pointing out that in most cases children were attacked by people known to them, by adults who were supposed to protect them, such as relatives, employers and school teachers.

Just three days after her first blog post, police arrested an 80-year-old man who worked as a caretaker at an orphanage in the central town of Mawanella on charges of abusing 15 underage girls. All the victims were below the age of 15 years.

But these are just two instances where ordinary citizens have stepped out of their comfort zones to take on the ugly issue of rape and abuse.

Despite reports that incidents of rape, especially abuse of minors, are on the rise – police spokesperson Ajith Rohana said that over 700 cases had been reported by mid-2012 – many feel that the public has been lukewarm at best, complicit at worst.

“I think Sri Lanka has been conditioned to be immune to violence after 30 years of war,” Dilrukshi Handunnetti, a lawyer and writer, told IPS.

It is a view that is shared by the young and old alike, spanning a diversity of race, gender and religion.

“I feel that in Sri Lanka, our collective silence is by no means limited to the issue of rape alone. We, as a people, prefer to be blissfully ignorant and ever resilient, irrespective of the issue. The culture of ‘people power’ or mass mobilisation clearly missed our shores,” Marisa de Silva, a post-graduate student, told IPS.

Handunnetti, who has worked with Transparency International on advocacy issues and regularly takes part in human rights discussions, told IPS she felt that most Sri Lankans seemed programmed to ‘shut down’ when confronted with the topic of sexuality.

“Even at human rights discussions, matters relating to sexuality just fall off the table, no one wants to talk,” she said.

Such ignorance – and a refusal to grapple with the truth – can be devastating.

In Sri Lanka’s northern region, which is only just now opening up after three decades of civil war that only ended in May 2009, there is an increase in teenage pregnancies, Saroja Sivachandran, head of the Jaffna-based Women and Development Organisation, told IPS.

The organisation has recorded over 400 cases of teen pregnancies and received over 300 reports of rape in the northern region for this year alone. She believes lack of knowledge is the primary reason that leads to abuse.

“These girls and even the boys are naive, they don’t know what is out there, but with the war ending, the outside world has crashed into their lives. We have to tell them what is good and what is not,” she said.

De Silva admits that a blog or a Facebook page has limited impact in Sri Lanka. “We have to reach out to the regions where these things are happening, we have to somehow get our people to talk and report on this,” he stressed.

Sporadic protests have been held in Colombo and throughout the suburbs, while a group of activists are planning to write to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, highlighting the issue and seeking a meeting.

But as Sivachandaran pointed out, given the magnitude of the problem, the reaction of the masses has been “woeful”.

At least in cyber space, the public verdict has been clear – 60 percent of participants in web surveys carried out by Lankadeepa, a Sinhala newspaper, and the Derana media group, believe that convicted child rapist should be given the death penalty, even though the death sentence is not carried out in the country.

De Silva told IPS that change will take time and will be laboriously slow. “But the more we talk, the more people will be aware and perpetrators exposed.”

World Bank’s Gaye feels that if a strong-willed leadership is at the mantle of any movement, it will take off, but will succeed only if a majority of the island’s citizens take note.

“To make a change, you need strong political will and leadership, which is evident in some parts of Sri Lanka,” she said, hastening to add, “if Sri Lanka is serious about becoming the Miracle of Asia, it needs to protect its people and it is the responsibility of each and every Sri Lankan to make sure that this happens.”


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  • hansan

    Sri Lankans have come to a stage that they have no time to see about any thing else but to find food for living, As it has become so difficalt even with  having a job, And the people has realised how unresonable the things what is happenning around, even the International Organisations advice also have been rejected and Leders do what is benificial for them with all the tricks starting from Election and counting Votes. Nothing more to talk.


    Rape and murder victims have out numbered the dengue victims by many fold. We are talking about the great teachings of the greatest teachers of all, Lord Buddha. It all looks just lip service shouldn’t we an example for others before we boast about the Dharma and attack on other places of worship. We see sex abusers in uniform, in robes, elderly over eighty years and in politicians who have connection in high places. And we proudly call Sri Lanka a Buddhist country! Please act now before things go completely out of control! 

  • Pillaipuli

    As long as you have rapists as legislators in the country you cant fight againts this kind of crimes. During the final stages of war lot of inocent women were raped by the security personel and this was widely accepted by the mahavamsa mentality. Now they are crying foul.

  • mojo

       No surprise, Soldiers who rapes even dead in this  country Srilanka…

  • truth

    As long as we have a government which sends a murderer out of a country and pays all his bills for his holiday abroad,, we cannot expect to have justice for rape victims, or murder victims!!!  As long as the country is being ruled by drug dealers and the choicest jobs are given to nephews and nieces and the sons gets qualifications without even writing the exam, how can one expect justice?

  • Mina

    The stupid, selfish leaders of this nation are too busy getting rich.  There are no laws to protect innocent people in general and there are no heavy punishments for rapists either. 

    Rajapaksha family needs to open their eyes because the whole world knows what is going on in Sri Lanka thanks to media.

    So much for a Buddhist country!!

  • Markharran

    this corrupted government & its underground alliance continue in power this
    can not be avoided . On top of that, law of the land in  the hands of military which is known for its
    human right violation What else anyone can expect

  • Tmohsink

    All are out in the Middle East, screwing Indians and Pakistanies for their SATISFACTIONS.

  • Venus

    No decent SINHALA BUDDHIST accepted that kind of low deeds. You have very limited knowledge about the good and respectable Sinhala Buddhists due to the language barrier. I feel very sorry.

    But keep one thing in mind; as long as we people of the country keep on dividing, we can never come up as a united nation. so in other words we are helping those culprits, bastards and perpetrators to dance the way they want.


  • sad

    Mother went to the middle east leaving her children big and small unattended.
    father raping the children.
    uncles and neighbours raping them as well.

  • worried

    What is the punishment for the rapists???
    The raped suffer in dead silence, damaged forever.

  • Corniche cafe

    Gulf nations style rules should apply “CAPITAL PUNISHMENT”, these kind of incident happends ONLY PARENTS HAVE THE RIGHT TO PARDON, that mean not even country President have power to overules.

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